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Market Place Market Place
Note the new building in the photo on the corner.
Regent Street Regent Street
Note the 'Old Red Lion Hotel'
Chapmangate Chapmangate
Note the independent chapel built in 1807 to the left.
That Fateful Night
Pocklington Airfield was the site of one of the main Bomber airbases in the second world war. This article is taken from a supplement printed by the Pocklington Post in Easter 1993 entitled 'G-George'. It tells the story of Bill Comrie and Douglas Harper, who bravely steered his stricken aircraft away from the town to sacrifice his life and those of his 7 crew and whose names today are remembered in the street names of the West Green housing estate.

The fateful night of 29th March 1943 was one of heavy rain, low cloud and icing. March 29th was on a Monday, as it is this year. The target was again Berlin. Tom Wingham who was in the crew of one of the other nine aircraft setting off for Berlin that night takes up the story:

Crew
Above: Five of the crew of Halifax 'G-George' which crashed into the West Green on 29th March 1943. From left to right: Sgt. Myles Squiers, Air Gunner; Flying Officer Douglas Harper, Navigator; Flight Sgt. Bill Comrie, Pilot; Sgt. Frank Dorrington, Wireless Operator; Pilot Officer William Jenkins, Bomb Aimer.

"We had visited Berlin two nights before and the word was that Butch Harris wanted one more crack at it before the lighter evenings made it too difficult. The weather forecast was appalling and unofficially our two Met Officers at Pocklington were backing a'scrub'. At the original time of take-off, I think about 7.00pm, a postponement came through since there was an occlusion running North to South right through the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire bases. At the time it was pouring with rain with cloud up to 16,000 feet. The occlusion was moving more slowly than forecast and a further postponement was made as the new take-off time drew near, which is why we were taking off so late for a trip to Berlin. Having hung about the messes for nearly three hours await­ing a decision no one really believed that we were going to face this weather and a great deal of

GeorgeHolden

Wing commander George Holden, DFC

He had been the 102 Squadren Commander since October 1942. It was he who flew the 'G-George' to Berlin two nights before it crashed into the West Green on it's way to the same target.

incredulity was expressed when we finally found ourselves committed. One of the few nights I can remember when Butch Harris's parentage was in doubt!"
10 aircraft finally took off from Pocklington after the two postponements. The first took off at 9.45pm and the last at 10.06pm. They were to take a northern route across the Baltic. Tom Wingham's aircraft 'Q-Queenie' piloted by Sgt. Hewlett took off at 9.47pm and from the moment they took off they were in cloud. Sgt Hewlett was unable to gain sufficient height and speed and by the time they reached the Hensburg area the perspex in the windscreen and turrets was iced up. They jettisoned their bombs and turned back, returning to Pocklington at 3.09am. After landing they found that one engine was leaking oil and another glycol. Two other aircraft had to turn back that night. The first of the early returners was Pilot Officer Barker who jettisoned his bombs at 10.32 and landed back at Pocklington at 12.11. Their aircraft appears to have had similar problems to that of "Q-Queenie" in failing to gain speed. An hour later Flight Sgt McKinley landed back at Pocklington having jettisoned his bombs after the failure of his Constant Speed Unit. The aircraft of Wing Commander Coventry (who became the Squadron Commander a fortnight later) had to land away at Hardwicke after being attacked by a German fighter on the way back to Pocklington. The last of the five aircraft which did make the journey to Berlin and back to base, landed in Pocklington at 6.04 in the morning.

'G-George' took off at 9.58pm but one minute later it was to crash into the West Green. Exactly what happened in that minute we will never know as all seven crew members were killed instantly. Crashes such as this were so frequent that extensive enquiries were not held. However, from eye witness accounts a fairly clear picture emerges. There was certainly no shortage of ability in the crew. As we have seen, the Pilot, Bill Comrie, favourably impressed the Conversion Flight Commander. Dismissing a common cause of such crashes in the early designs of Halifax 'swig on take off - Wally Lashbrook says: "not with a Pilot of Comrie's ability". The Navigator, Flying Officer Douglas Harper, had been the top cadet on his navigator's course in Edmonton, Canada
.
Why was it then that an aircraft with a pilot and navigator who had shown such outstand­ing attainments in training and had survived the flak of the Ruhr Valley earlier in the month, flying in an aircraft only a month old and which had flown to Berlin successfully two nights before should crash so soon?
RAF records only state: "attempting to avoid another aircraft stalled and crashed soon after take-off.

From eye witness accounts including some with expert knowledge of Halifaxes and flying control procedures we can elaborate on this. Stan Jeffrey, who happened to come from the same village as Douglas Harper, was working on 'E-East' at its dispersal point. He watched the aircraft circle the aerodrome and then crash.

The circling of the drome is explained by Jack Merrick who worked as an R/T Op in Flying Control, as the 'aircraft setting course' when the aircraft circled round before all were airborne and could set off together. At that time the circuits of Pocklington intersected with those of Melbourne andElvington, but this was subsequently changed. An aircraft from one of these other two airfields got under the main-plane of 'G-George' and the other aircraft's slipstream caused it to turn over.
HalifaxBomber

A Halifax bomber on pocklington airfield in 1943
 

Tom Thackray who was serving in 10 Sqn at that time and is now the Editor of the 10 Sqn Newsletter was at Melbourne on that night and said that the story at the time was that 'G-George' "broke cloud and there was another aircraft very close which made them take rapid evasive action and the aircraft stalled or some such action occurred and they had not suffi­cient altitude to recover."
Jack Merrick was walking back from an evening in Pocklington with his friend, Peter Tranmere, who also worked as an R/T Op in Flying Control. They were to be on duty for the return from Berlin. As they watched the air­craft circling they saw the navigation lights of one of them turn over. His comment was "B......... Hell! A Halifax can't do that."

The phenomenon of the lights turning over was also witnessed by New Zealander Eric (Ned) Kelly, the Pilot of an aircraft which had taken part in the previous night's raid on St Nazaire. He was walking back in the drizzle to the airfield with the Roman Catholic padre after an evening at the Oak House Cinema (now Penny Arcadia). In wartime, pictures were shown early. They saw the aircraft navi­gation b'ghts going overhead. Then - "With one I suddenly realised that something was very wrong. The port red light had turned to green which meant that the plane had turned right over."

The next thing that Jack Merrick and Peter Tranmere noticed was that the aircraft appeared to be heading in their direction, the navigation lights getting wider and wider and they dived into a ditch, just as the aircraft went onto the field opposite. The aircraft was, in the words of Wilf Bell, seen to "side slip" into the West Green.

It seems that not only had Bill Comrie managed to avoid hitting the other aircraft, but had also avoided hitting the town itself. Arthur Brown saw that the aircraft was heading directly for the town and then swerved to avoid it. Arthur believes that it was the skill of the Pilot which saved the town from massive devastation.
This view is endorsed by Peter Tranmere who said: "I can confirm that the pilot Sgt Bill Comrie appeared to be making every effort to miss the town. When we saw the navigation lights rum over the aircraft was over the town side of the railway crossing and I thought he was going to hit the town. Then he appeared to be coming right on to us, so he must have managed to get partial control to avoid the town."

The aircraft crash landed in an open field opposite Pocklington School. The explosion was heard not only all over Pocklington, but Tom Thackray remembers hearing it from as far away as Melbourne. With its load of high explosives and incendiary bombs as well as about 2000 gallons of high octane petrol in its wings 'G-George' was soon ablaze. The fire brigade was on the scene within five minutes and fought the blaze for 32 minutes. The road was blocked. Pocklington's leading fireman at that time, Raymond Slaughter, recalled: "It was a very sad night. The seven were laid up dead and the atmosphere was heavy with the smell of aircraft fuel. The inferno and roaring noise could be seen and heard all over Pock­lington and we had to work quickly because it was well after blackout time and there was the danger of attracting enemy 'planes." ('Pocklington Post' 29.3.90)

The late Raymond Slaughter, the chief firefighter in 1943, holds the fire service report relating to the Halifax crash. The report reveals that the aircraft was fully loaded with high explosives, phorphorus bombs, and incendiary devices.

One of these bombs was discovered buried in West Green by workmen constructing the Fairclough Homes housing development in 1991.

The MOD quashed rumours that the device was a chemical weapon.

RaymondSlaughter

The Aftermath

Families of 102 Sqn aircrew killed in Britain had the choice of having the burial here or at their home town. Bill Comrie, Douglas Harper and Myles Squires are buried at Barmby Moor. The funerals of the other four took place in the week following March 29 1943 in their home areas - Birmingham, Brighton, London and Glasgow.

Members of other crews spent little time contemplating the fate of their comrades who had - in the euphemism of the day - 'bought it'. With the task they had to face it was no good thinking of such risks. Also they tended to stick together as a crew and did not generally get to know members of other crews very well. One exception to this was Flight Engineer of 'G-George', JockMcGrath. Tom Thackray who was serving with 10 Squadron remembers him.
"Jock McGrath was short in stature but full of fun and devilment as was his pal another Flight Engineer Geordie Kent, who was also short in stature and of the same type.

"I don't know which Squadron Geordie was flying with. However I met him in a canteen in York a couple of months after Jock was killed. He was sitting all alone and looking very de­pressed and low spirited. Which was unusual for Geordie. Apparently Jock's death had affected him greatly
.
Two of the crew were married. Freda, the wife of Bomb Aimer William Jenkins, lived in Birmingham. The Pilot, Bill Comrie, had got married a few weeks before the crash. His navigator Douglas Harper had been his best man. He married an English girl, Grace Bal-shaw, who lived near West Kirby, Cheshire, where Bill had been based at a transit camp. Bill had told Grace that if anything happened to him she should go to his parents in the USA. This she did. She is described by her sister-in-law as a "brilliant girl" and soon found work in the USA. She later remarried to become Mrs Frank Aston. She had two daughters and has returned on holiday to England two or three times. She is now believed to be living in the Seattle area.

Myles Squiers was engaged but did not get the chance of even a few snatched weeks of married happiness. Had he and his fiancee, Stella Thomas of Ulverston, survived the war they would have gone to South Africa together. Stella has remained single and lives with her sister Monica in Ulverston. John King the Mid Upper Gunner had four brothers, one of them only six years old at the time. Douglas Harper had a younger brother who received the news of his brother's death on the very day that he himself joined the RAF. He was given a week's compassionate leave. Frank Dorrington the Wireless Opera- Ji tor had only one sister.

As well as the tragedy of bereavements, the waste of human potential is also evident in this story. Throughout the war selection tests for aircrew were most stringent. Those who passed all the tests were an elite. We have already seen some of the achievements of Douglas Harper. Mrs Gwen Fairclough of Sheffield had known Douglas very well and kept in touch with his mother until 1950 when she married and moved away from Leicester­shire. She received a last letter from him dated 25th March, only four days before the crash. She said: "Although he was only 21 years old when he died he had achieved much and I am sure that he would have gone on to be a great leader." Another friend of the family, Philip Austin, had seen him before returning to Pocklington on his last leave a few days before the crash. He wrote "I must say that Douglas was a fine boy and a gentle­man and cannot speak too highly of him." Douglas's younger brother Stephen became the Chief Foreign Correspondent of the' Daily Express', a BBC broadcaster and author of several books. Even he says that he was always trying to match his elder brother's achievements.

In March 1943 Europe, from Norway down to Greece, was in the grip of one of the most evil tyrannies the world has known. The loss of 'G-George' was part of the dreadful price paid for the freedom and comparative peace which we have enjoyed in the 48 years since the end of the war. 102 Sqn lost 140 Halifaxes during the war and before them 405 Sqn lost 26 Halifaxes and 20 Wellingtons. Hundreds, perhaps over 1000, brave young men went through the main gates of RAF Pocklington on the York Road never to return.. We should remember them perhaps so that in the words of Bill Comrie's fellow countryman, Abra­ham Lincoln, 80 years earlier "from these honoured dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion".